September 2013 archive

Mommy Sabbatical

It was Mother’s Day and my husband handed me a homemade certificate for a spa treatment.  I feigned a “thank you”.  Both he and I knew that I would never use it.  I never had in the past.  Not for any big reason, but just because it became something more that I needed to coordinate in the family’s calendar.  Calling spas, researching prices and making the appointment, all for a service that I’m not totally familiar with and don’t always appreciate the value in.  So the gesture, while appreciated, always became just that…a gesture.

“Wait, wait,” he offered, “the other choice that you have is for me take a week’s vacation from work and handle all of the day-to-day kid activities, while you…..just take a break“.  

He had me at the word break.  It had been a long stretch of diligence, and I was feeling bogged down by stints of taking care of the kids alone while he traveled for work and volunteer commitments at the kids’ school.  Motherhood is my greatest privilege, yet it was starting to feel like something I was soldiering through. 


For the first time in several years I was coming out of the cycle of being pregnant, trying to get pregnant, nursing and/or sleepless.  My youngest child was now two and I felt like I was able to start standing up straight again, literally and figuratively.  I was soon to be no longer hunched over a stroller, a nursing baby or a wobbly child learning to walk.  I could feel just a tad bit of freedom beckoning around the corner.  Deep breaths and rolled back shoulders would follow soon.  

I knew all of this space was coming, but was also acutely aware of savoring and clinging tightly to every precious moment with my young children.  Nevertheless, I was beginning to feel a bit lost in it all.  At times I couldn’t keep myself focused on a thought and seemed to forget things easily.  Sleepless nights and a mind spinning with child-related activities were clashing against the persistent chatter of three young children and making me feel like my brain was processing everything just a beat slower than the rest of the world.
This gift and offer was perfectly timed.  Without taking even a moment to ponder the decision, I handed back the homemade spa certificate and said I’d be happy to have him watch the kids for a week.  My husband has earned more vacation time then we have funds, or babysitters, to help us take advantage of it.  Finding sitters is always a stress without family in town and with a child with severe food allergies.  Even with grandparents able to look after our kids, its bit of a risk and poses the logistical snags of traveling them to us or vice versa.  

So I welcomed the idea of leaving the kids in the trustworthy hands of my co-parent, life partner and their father.  But what was even more appealing about the idea was that my husband would get a small glimpse into our daily life.  Its a daily life that he knows, but doesn’t feel in all of its messiness and strain.  He is a hands-on and involved dad, but he works long hours and travels often.  While this is appreciated, it also shields him from the day-to-day grind of car pools and extra curricular activities.  The sports gear, the snacks, the homework, the PTO dynamics, the backseat demands….its all par for a course which I’m grateful to be a player on.  But its all stuff that I was happy to hand over for a few days while he experienced the joy and chaos of it all.

Where would I go?  What would I do?  It didn’t matter.  I’d be on a break.  As much as I cherish time with my long distance friends I knew that what I craved right now is the space to sharpen myself, clear my head and get to that place of being able to take deep breaths again. 

Prior to having kids I enjoyed the times when I made work trips by myself.  Being in the airport solo and exploring new places on my own was empowering and refreshing.  Its part of the same reason that I enjoy jogging because these times give me the chance to be alone with my thoughts.  I am fueled in equal parts by friends, neighbors, loved ones….and myself.  With the constant presence of young children always in my ear, what I needed was alone.  What I needed was a sabbatical! 

The word sabbatical takes root in Biblical times and the commandment to rest and keep holy the seventh day.  More recently it is used to describe a break in regular responsibilities that many companies offer their employees after several years of committed service so the employee can rest, travel, do research, or whatever they choose.
That was it!  I would take a Mommy Sabbatical.  After nine years of dedicated service, I could use a break from my regular responsibilities and take some time away to recharge and refresh.
Immediately I knew how this would work. I’d take my sabbatical in late September.  Summer was right around the corner and already choreographed with weddings, block parties, swim meets and everything else that makes summer so fun.  Waiting until September would allow time for my husband to plan his work calendar accordingly.  Additionally, most of the craziness of those initial back-to-school activities would be past and a month in, we’d have our fall schedule fine tuned and running relatively smoothly.  Late September is a little window of calm after the hype of late August, but before the busy days leading into Halloween, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays.  I knew that I was leaving some volunteer commitments behind, but I also knew that I’ve given a lot of my time to others and not much to myself.
Over the weekend prior to my departure, I asked many of you on my facebook page if I should make it easier for my husband while I was away and lay out neat little piles with the swim/soccer/school gear or let him sweat it out and deal with trying to unearth it all in our piles of laundry.  Some of you said I should make him figure it out so he’d have a true feel for how the week flows and appreciate what I do.  Others of you said I should organize it all for him since he was giving me such a gift (…and to minimize the phone calls when he can’t find something).
I took both responses and did something in between.  I made piles and lists to help him know the rhythm of who goes where when and what to take, but I also left plenty of room for he and the kids to create their own pattern and memories together.  I offered a few laughable but true tidbits like: 
  • depart at least 20 minutes before every activity, even if its only 2 minutes away…somehow you’ll need the extra 18 minutes.
  • upon departure go through a check list of three key things: epi-pens?  potty?  shoes on the right feet?  (please note I can never nail the last two)
  • Five minutes is a really tight turnaround to get from one school to the other.  Be strategic about which train track crossing you choose and bring your A-game!
  • You won’t have time to take a shower or properly use the restroom until Wednesday afternoon.  Plan accordingly.
  • In the middle of Tuesday night activities you’ll shake your head and say to yourself, “this sucks!”  And it will…but then it won’t.
So I took my Mommy Sabbatical and drove five hours away from home to a family cottage on Lake Erie.  It was no extra financial expense to us and certainly not glamorous.  But just the drive alone with my music and my decisions was lovely.  I took the long way, and stopped at random spots that interested me without worry of whether the car’s pause would wake a sleeping toddler or elicit complaints from others.  Upon my arrival, it was just me and my thoughts.  I took bike rides and wrote, and wrote and took bike rides.  And it was a glorious quiet, and a glorious wonderful.
Once in a while I ventured out to find inspiring places to write, and came up with these spots.  A winery, a light house, and the beach all served as a backdrop for me to soul search and dig up old stories.


I binged on old episodes of HBO shows, read trash magazines and had late afternoon snacks consisting of chicken salad, green salad and frosted cookies that served as both lunch and dinner.  I put myself on a Diet Coke detox and kept hydrated with water.  
Occasionally I’d get a text or phone call from my husband asking where a certain item was or what time  they needed to be someplace.  A few mommy friends reached out to tell me that he was doing just fine, they’d seen him arrive on time at school with everyone dressed and their hair combed. 
There was this text from him that clearly earned one of our daughters, Lucy, the best souvenir and first place standing in the Favorite Child Race, at least for today (just kidding, of course!…kinda).

The text made me feel good because it was acknowledgement that I’m doing a good job from one of the little people who I do it all for.  And in the midst of my glorious time alone, my heart felt a little pang. 

  

And there was a phone call when our daughter was crying about going to school.  I offered a few suggestions to my husband about how to work with her on breathing and bravery.  I assured her that I’d see her the following day and hung up the phone.  The call made me feel sad that my little girl was having a hard time and I wasn’t there to hug her.  And my heart felt a little pang. 

And finally there was a text from my husband letting me know that our bathtub was out of commission due to a leak and he wasn’t sure how he was going to wash our youngest child.  I suggested that he put her in the kitchen sink just like when she was a baby.  I told him to bring down her rubber ducky and make a big game out of it.  He was relieved with the suggestion and responded, “oh good idea!  Vivian will love that!”  The idea made me feel happy because I knew she would love it.  And my heart felt another little pang.

So a bit later, there was this photo.  Still lapping up my alone time, I found myself checking the iCloud camera roll on my phone and found this snapshot her special kitchen sink bath time.
  
The snapshot made me laugh.  She did love it.  It was a good idea!  And my heart felt yet another little pang.  

All of those little pangs in my heart on my Mommy Sabbatical made me realize that the beauty of quiet and nature helps give me the clarity to breathe deeply and discover the old stories deep in my soul.  But the beauty of chatter, chaos and children is creating new chapters.  My family’s story is right there unfolding in front of me everyday.  Its just a matter of being able to see it.  So if getting away helped me sharpen my focus to a point that I am more mindful of these moments and stories as they are being presented, then a Mommy Sabbatical was just what I needed.

An Ordinary Day (with Food Allergies)

A rushed evening. With kids aged 9, 5 and 2, all of my evenings are, it seems. But that night was particularly rushed. Not only was it Curriculum Night at the kids’ school, but my husband was flying in from a work trip, our dining room ceiling was torn up from a suspected bathtub leak above and the floor was littered with post-vacation laundry (never mind that the vacation was two weeks earlier). Back-to-school papers and leftover birthday cards bumped into each other on the kitchen table and I scurried around trying to get the kids fed before picking up our babysitter.

Pretzel dogs — its what for dinner! Throw down a cup of mandarin oranges, a glass of soy milk and a microwave steamed bag of green beans and we’ve covered all the food groups, right? It’s not our usual, but would have to do for tonight, anyway. Now, if I could just get them eating, I’d have a minute to make sure I didn’t have stains on my shirt or smell too badly. I still had to organize the papers that my role as Kindergarten Room Parent required me to arrive with in the classroom that night and baths to give.

Plop, plop, plop, swish, swish, swish. Three plates were filled with food and three plates were distributed via a push across the countertop to three hungry kids.

“No, I don’t know when Daddy will be home.”
“Yes, the babysitter is coming tonight.”
“Well, go potty then”
“What’s wrong, why are you crying?”

As they usually do, my 5-year-old and 2-year-old daughters claimed the energy of the room with their requests and chatter. My 9-year-old son, with a bit more maturity (a bit!) and the appetite of a boy his age, fist-pumped the air when we saw the pretzel dogs and let out a “for dinner, really?!?” I sighed and nodded. He enthusiastically responded with a “Yes!” before digging in and taking a bite.

Despite the chaos of his little sisters, the house and the to-dos for the evening, a thought managed to present itself to the front of my mind. Shoot! I didn’t double-check the ingredients on the pretzel dogs when we purchased them at Costco the past weekend. We’ve had them many times before, but in the craziness of the Sunday afternoon family shopping trip, I didn’t remember to actually read the ingredients this time.

I’ve been reading ingredients on everything we purchase for the past nine years, ever since my son, Jack, at just 15 weeks of age, went into anaphylaxis in response to his first sip of formula.  Since then, our household has been free of his allergens — dairy, egg and nuts — in order to keep him safe.

“Wait!” I said to my son, “I have to check the ingredients!”

Obedient and respectful, he paused immediately, “But I’ve had them before, Mom”

“I know,” as I pulled open the freezer door, “it’s probably OK, but sometimes, the ingredients can change.” I only saw plastic bags of the pretzel dogs, but no exterior box with the ingredient labeling. I remembered that in order to make freezer space, I hadn’t saved the box.

“Just wait a second” I asked and went out to the recycling bin, where I flipped over box after box and couldn’t find it.

I hurried back in and told Jack that I couldn’t find it. I reassured him that it was probably no big deal, but we needed to check. He was getting a bit more concerned now and reporting that he just had one bite, but didn’t feel itchy or anything. He followed me around and I pulled up the Internet browser on the laptop.

“What was the brand? What was the brand?” He and I did an image search and our detective work was rewarded when we recognized the black box and red writing.

“That’s it!” he declared. I could tell that he was very hungry and really wanted to eat the pretzel dogs… and I could tell that he was getting a little worried and really wanting to know that the ingredients were safe.

“Good, here it is,” I said as I scanned the ingredients. Suddenly, I landed on the words “contains milk” and my body stiffened and jumped into action. Racing through my mind, I was thinking about how I wasn’t sure that this was the same box online that we had purchased… how in the past they had been fine… how he said he felt fine… but most importantly, how we needed to confirm.

Jack sensed the quick change of pace, as did the girls. Everyone was suddenly alert.

“Jack, get your EpiPen and come with me! Stay close. Girls, stay right there.” Jack grabbed his EpiPen and I grabbed my cell phone, poised to dial 911. We ran outside to the alley behind our house and tore open the garbage can. It was hot and humid, still 90 degrees at 5:30 p.m..  Dressed in white pants for a meeting that started in just 30 minutes, I flipped over the garbage can and began digging through food scraps and bathroom tissue. Jack kept reporting that he felt fine, he’d just had one bite.

“It only takes one bite, Jack,” I responded as I tore through the garbage.

Halfway down, I located the box and together, we read the ingredients on the back. I started laughing out loud and said, “Whew! Its all fine, Jack… same ingredients as before. You can go eat dinner.”

We started walking back towards the house and his fussing little sisters. Sweating, I wiped the hair off my forehead as Jack patted my back and said, “You’re a good mom!”

We made it through Curriculum Night and the busy days that followed. With everything going on, I didn’t think about the chain of events surrounding the pretzel dogs again.

In fact, I didn’t remember anything about the pretzel dogs until two days later, when I watched the interview with Natalie Giorgi’s parents. Natalie is the 13-year-old who died at a family camp after accidentally taking a bite of a dessert with peanut butter in it, despite being administered three EpiPens and practicing a lifetime of diligence. Her parents spoke out last week about the need for allergy awareness in hopes of starting a national discussion. As I watched them speak, I cried. Actually, I wept. The floodgates opened and out came my fear and sorrow as I wept for Natalie and her parents, siblings and friends. And I also cried for all of us living with the everyday fear of food allergies, be it in a convenience-based pretzel dog dinner or a celebration-focused camp dessert.

I vowed to follow the Giorgi’s example and their call for increased allergy awareness. I am encouraging friends and family to watch the documentary, Food Allergies in America: An Emerging Epidemic, narrated by Steve Carrell and airing on The Discovery Channel.  My son created a team to support food allergy research and awareness by joining a FARE Walk for Allergies at the end of the month. I have re-promoted a piece I wrote last spring about what its like to be an allergy mom and recalled the pretzel dog story to family and friends and now, to you.

The events surrounding our pretzel dog story may seem unremarkable because of their (thankfully) happy ending. Yet this story is important because it showcases a snapshot of what life is like when you have a child with food allergies. In fact, these fleeting moments of panic, interwoven between everyday life, are remarkable because they are so unremarkable.

You can learn more about supporting food allergy research and education at http://www.foodallergy.org.

This post appeared on The Huffington Post.  Click here to read more from Carissa on Huffington Post.


When a Choice Makes You

The following is a guest post for 5280mama.com and originally appeared on that site.
Over the last few months, Elayna at 5280mama.com and I have been corresponding about motherhood, careers, friendships and many things in between.  She asked me to write a few notes in the form of a guest blog post about why I chose to be at stay-at-home mom. 
However, when I sat down to write the post I had some trouble for a few reasons.   For starters, while we all appreciate each other’s perspectives, it can be dangerous to lean too heavily on what any other person says.  I really don’t want to be a spokeswoman for stay-at-home moms, working moms, or any other mom.   I just want to be a spokeswoman for me. 
And for me personally, that has been a stay-at-home mom, a working mom, a working part time from home mom and a working part time away from home mom.  While I’m happy (on most days) and grateful for my situation, this is not the choice I intended to make.   As I said in a piece I wrote about Leaning In for The Huffington Post and LeanIn.org, I think its true that many of us can have co-existing dreams.
A series of unexpected circumstances and resulting decisions has brought me to this place and this perspective.  This perspective allows me to focus not on the outcome of a woman’s decision to stay at home or work, rather to focus on the universal difficulty surrounding this decision.  And whether it’s a decision that we get to make, or that is made for us, we as women should celebrate each other for surviving the deliberation, and surviving the difficulty logistically and emotionally in landing where we land.  For me personally, it’s a choice that has provided both sacrifices and gifts on both sides of the decision and it’s a difficulty that has both haunting and rewarding.
Prior to having children, I didn’t expect to land here.  Yet due to a series of medical situations and resulting life decisions, professionally I’ve arrived at a place that allows me to be full time stay-at-home with our three living children and use the skill set I’m honing as a mother to make regular contributions to Huffington Post Parents. 
There are certainly times when I fantasize about what life would be like with a hearty second income.  And there are times when I’m relieved to receive a phone call from the school nurses office and know that I can be there in minutes.  I hear myself tell my daughters and son a little too emphatically about my days when I worked in advertising and I worry is my example enough. 
I’ve lost a bit of who I was…that drive, that energy, that pace.  But I’ve gained a bit of who I am….that cheerfulness, that softness, this pace.  I think that perhaps I’m a bit more lover and a bit less fighter, which is both good and bad.  I miss the working me, but I am proud of this me. 
And that pride is what I need to know that my example is enough.  Because my example isn’t based on where I am or what I’m doing — my example is based on who I am and who I want to encourage my children to be.   I want my children to be happy, strong, smartand to use these things to contribute.  But better worded, I want my beautiful little maniacs to be grateful, courageous, wiseand to use these things to give. 
So I’d love to roll my shoulders back and proudly claim the choice to be a stay-at-home mom, or to be a working mom.   But it wasn’t the choice I expected to make, rather it’s a choice that made me.  So all I can do is roll my shoulders back, give myself a pat on the back for surviving the deliberation and proudly proclaim that this seems right for me….at this moment.
This post originally appeared on http://www.carissak.com.  You can read more from Carissa by following her on twitter @CarissaK, liking her facebook page http://www.facebook.com/carisskwriter and on The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carissa-k